Through five years of worldly travel, the domestic poultry have always shared the land with me, whether the incessant crowing of the Meso-American feral chickens, the wandering poultry of Morocco, hardy Icelanders in the sub-Arctic, or the small scale backyard chicken flocks of Canada and Europe. The chicken has always been a jovial companion, and a presence of the wilderness to me. The first farm animal I ever met was a chicken, my grandfathers’, and I find in their ancient nature, something deep, grounded, and self-reliant. This spring I wanted to tend to some my own, and started to collect a small flock of exotic chickens.
It started with three Ayam Cemani roosters that I picked up in Wooler, Ontario, then soon after gave them a lady. Since the Ayam Cemani Roo’s were bonded, they took to protecting her together, forming a kind of reverse harem relationship. Then came the Silkie chickens and Banteys from other flock owners in this village of Marlbank. The Silkies came to live on one side of the coop, with the Banteys and Cemani’s on the other. The former being a land race, and flightless are more gentle, and weaker than the more robust Cemani’s and the fiesty Bantey’s. The Bantey chickens are the original English fighting game bird, though I only keep two hens, and we culled the rooster for a winter stew. The birds weathered the last of the cold weather in March under heat lamps, and after about a month, I brought in three Red Sexlinks, which are a hybrid of the Rhode Island Red Rooster, and the New Hampshire hens. They are prolific egg layers, and I have had egg sustainability since they landed on the farm. Usually I can gather a dozen eggs in two days, and I tend to eat 4-6 eggs per day for a protein source.
For 7 years, I had heard of the Ayam Cemani breed with their blackened feathers, black meat, bones, comb, feet, and internal organs. They lived in myth, until I finally saw them in person. The Silkies came with much the same folkloric baggage, a strange Indonesian bird from the island of Java with five talons, black skin, feathers resembling fur, that did not fly, and wore strange plumage of white, grey, gold, or brown with tufts on their head. In the morning, I put two of the smaller silkies on my shoulders to roost, while I poured the chicken cereals into their feeding troughs. They happily perch while I would continue the morning ritual. For the first month I kept them inside their spacious coop, and would free range them a couple hours per day. Then a gift of a chicken tractor was acquired for use in having the chickens with an open bottom mobile coop. I ran this over a small patch of hay field in three day rotations with the black jungle fowl, the red layers, and the fiesty banteys, and they formed a pecking order that in my eyes accommodated every bird, without any harm or fighting. I broadcast a medley of seeds into the earth floored tractor, and moved the birds in three day rotation slots, during this time, they scratched and mowed the ground into a fine tillage, ate the grasses and bugs, and layed eggs into the small piles of clippings they made. At dusk I visit them again to lead them back to the coop, while they follow loyally for their dinner inside, and find their roosting positions for the night. I simply collect the eggs from the shaded partition at the back of the chicken tractor.
After a couple months of small scale chicken fancying, two of the Silkies went broody, and layed a small clutch of their own. I collected a few eggs from the more rare and less broody ayam cemani, and even a couple Americauna eggs donated from a tree customer. The first hen layed on her clutch for 22 days and nothing happened, so I became concerned. With each successive night and day, still no hatching until the 27th day a full week after normal incubation rates, I decided to crack one egg and see inside. The chick was un-developed and had not fully imbibed the nutrients of the egg. Each of the eggs were in the same stage, with only the chicken fetus in the egg, but not alive. Four of the eggs in the clutch were stolen during the incubation, though I never found the predator, and two were cracked during the jostling around of the eggs by the mother hen. None of these first brood would hatch out a living breathing chick, and it was in order I think of a few frosty nights and radical temperature change during this early season that the egg humidity simply fluctuated too much, and stopped the natural processes of birth from developing, so in this case the egg came first, and not the chicken. The second Silkie hen hatched three mixed eggs, and one died as a stillbirth. I now have one left from this trio, a small black jungle bird.
After this first tragedy, I felt the fathering instinct to nurture and provide, and sought out to add to the flock from the outside. I looked on kijiji in the local area to find new life, and found a farm with African guinea fowl and a Red Golden Pheasant who needed some extra care. So I drove out to their land, in a savannah-esque canadian wilderness on a country backroad, and met their eclectic flock of Guineas, Peafowl, Silkies, Pheasants, and Emus, and ended up taking home five guinea keats, and the sorry looking male pheasant. He was badly beaten up and picked of his colorful plumage by another male, so he was now under my care, and rehabilitation. For awhile, the six birds lived and three chicks lived, in my bedroom at the foot of my bed, so they could be kept safe and closer to me at night. I tended them with all the silent attention a man can give to small fragile animals, and watched them put on weight, peck for their morning grains, and occasionally escape their confines. They now live in a specially adapted coop together, with the other birds for neighbours, and feed on millet, turkey mash, and my specially blended chicken cereal with corn, herbs and seaweed.
As of this writing, they are nesting on the wood chips soundly in their coop, and I have not yet had any real predators, only once ever seeing the silhouette of a larger mammal climbing down from a buckeye tree near the free ranging silkies, which was spooked by my presence and kept its distance. I personally sleep very close to the coop, so they are in my zone 1, and I use permaculture principles in managing the flock, and herbal and plant medicine remedies for their health and well being. I have been experimenting with carrying the Silkies onto a small island in the middle of a pond, and letting them graze for the day. The island is accessible by a boardwalk, with small caves, tall grasses, and a weeping larch tree for shade. I pour their feed on a table stone, and they are protected from day time predators like raccoons or skunks while on the island. The boardwalk can be taken up, so as a moat would surround them completely. The surrounding pond grows is water source while a layer of duckweed on the surface provides a good aquatic vegetable food. The kids that visit the farm during the tree season love the silkies, and I never need an alarm clock when the roosters crow at 5 am to hail the sun at dawn, and I wake to a new day, full of the minute special-ness of a quiet life in the country.